By Peter Sullivan - 04/13/14 09:53 AM EDT
As the Middle East peace talks falter, Secretary of State John Kerry is under fire from members of Congress and Israeli officials who say he is being too demanding of the Israelis and too sympathetic to the Palestinians.
The criticism is a potential headache for Kerry as he tries to save negotiations on which he has staked a significant portion of his reputation, while at the same time juggling crises from Ukraine to Syria.
At the center of the controversy are comments Kerry made at a Senate hearing Tuesday, where he appeared to place greater blame on the Israelis for the breakdown in the talks. He pointed to their construction of new settlements after delaying a release of Palestinian prisoners.
"Unfortunately, the prisoners weren't released on the Saturday they were supposed to be released, and so day one went by, day two went by, day three went by, and then in the afternoon, when they were about to maybe get there, 700 settlement units were announced in Jerusalem, and poof, that was sort of the moment," Kerry said.
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that remark was "an unfortunate statement."
He said an earlier announcement from the Palestinian leadership that it was applying for membership in 15 international organizations was the more damaging blow to the talks.
"I think their intent was malevolent," Engel said of the Palestinians bid to join international organizations. "They had to have known that that was going to seriously cause a breakdown in further discussions."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) also pointed to the Palestinian applications, and said Kerry should not blame Israel.
"By doing those things [Kerry] obviously worsens relations between our closest ally in the Middle East, which is Israel," McCain said. "What Secretary Kerry should have done is said, 'I think these talks can be sustained. I want to get everybody at the table,' rather than pointing out blame."
An unnamed official in the Israeli prime minister's office told The New York Times Wednesday that Israel was "deeply disappointed" by Kerry's "poof" comment.
The official said Kerry "knows that it was the Palestinians who said no to continued direct talks with Israel in November; who said no to his proposed framework for final status talks; who said no to even discussing recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people; who said no to a meeting with Kerry himself; and who said no to an extension of the talks."
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki insisted that Kerry was not blaming one side. She said his comments simply "restate the chronology of events," adding, "he certainly stands by them and was surprised that there was a view that he was one-sided."
Kerry did say earlier in the hearing that both sides have taken actions that were "unhelpful."
But the succinctly stated "poof" remark has given critics something to seize on. "I don't see the point to what Kerry was doing," said Aaron David Miller, who was a State Department advisor on Arab-Israeli peace for two decades. "He's only going to make the domestic situation there worse."
The issue of recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is also one where Kerry has stirred controversy.
In March, Kerry noted that the 1947 UN resolution calls Israel a "Jewish state," and former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat agreed that Israel would be a Jewish state. But then Kerry added, "I think it's a mistake for some people to be raising it again and again as the critical decider of their attitude toward the possibility of a state and peace and we've obviously made that clear."
Engel indicated there is confusion as to what Kerry really meant, but said, "If that's what he said, then yes I think he's wrong. I don't think it should be played down any more than playing down the right of Palestinians to have a state."
The series of blows in the past two weeks has set back efforts to reach an agreement to continue negotiations beyond an April 29 deadline.
Israel had agreed to release a fourth round of Palestinian prisoners on March 29, but delayed doing so in an effort to extend peace talks beyond April 29. Israel then went ahead with the new settlements on April 1.
That evening, the Palestinians announced they were applying to join the 15 international organizations, which they had agreed not to do during the talks. Israel then canceled the already-delayed prisoner release.
Despite those trials, there is still some hope for the peace talks. U.S. envoy Martin Indyk met with both sides Thursday and the State Department said that "the gaps are narrowing" to reach a deal.
Miller argued the key issue, and a more important one than Kerry's comments, is the "insufficient ownership" of the peace process from the Israelis, Palestinians and President Obama.
"Kerry's operating in a kind of peace process Bermuda Triangle," he said.